The Arrival holds up today

The year was 1996. The movie everyone wanted to see that year was Independence Day, which was ultimately forgettable. I, like millions of other moviegoers, chose that film as opposed to The Arrival, the trailer of which looked absolutely awful (and still does). Give me a break, I was thirteen years old and I’m attempting to atone for my crimes here.

don’t even bother with this trailer, go straight to the movie

A funny thing happened when The Arrival premiered on HBO. I caught it from the beginning and found myself immediately drawn into it. The movie was ridiculous, even goofy at times, but overall it was designed as a thinking man’s summer blockbuster. Most likely because of the ID4 hype, however, the movie bombed at the box office (that didn’t stop a direct-to-video sequel, though). It’s a shame, too, because fourteen years later it’s still a very solid effort.

The movie opens with a climate scientist roaming a picturesque meadow. She sniffs a flower and unnecessarily says to herself, “This shouldn’t be here.” The camera proceeds to pull back—way back into outer space. We see she’s near the north pole and this meadow is completely surrounded by ice. Never mind that there probably isn’t any land that close to the north pole, it’s still much more exciting than instant alien invasion. The aliens are here. They’re already up to diabolical machinations. Apparently they’ve transported dirt to the north pole. That’s fucked up… or kind of nice. I don’t know which.

After the title card we meet Zane, a radio astronomer played by Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen sounds like a horrible (yet typical) choice to play a scientist, but he pulls it off with a dorky goatee, even dorkier spiked hair, and glasses. Zane’s a paranoid individual (at least that’s what his girlfriend says, but we kind of just have to take her word for it until the end) who’s just discovered forty-two seconds of a radio signal emitting from a star fourteen light years away. When he takes the message to Phil Gordian (Ron Silver) at JPL, the guy who pays Zane’s bills, he loses his job for seemingly unrelated reasons. Gordian promises to send the audio recording up the ladder, but the moment Zane leaves Gordian breaks the tape.

So Zane takes a job in what he calls telecommunications (read: installing home satellite dishes). Before long he has the idea to link several people’s satellite dishes into an array for his own purposes. How he does this without stringing several miles of cable directly to his house, I don’t know, but we’ll let that slide as it’s always good to see such a determined character. Back at his house he manages to lock onto the signal again, but there’s something strange about the second instance: the signal’s not coming from the star this time, but it’s being beamed from Earth to the star.

After a little detective work, Zane realizes the signal originated in Mexico. On an astronomer’s salary he takes the first plane to the broadcast location. Wouldn’t you know it: it’s exactly where that climate scientist from the beginning of the film went, too. Together they team up and discover a power plant the aliens are using to pump gases into the atmosphere. See, the aliens like it warm. Zane’s first indication something is wrong is when he sees a very similar face. At this point I’ve said too much.

The fun of the movie is that it posits one WTF moment after another. As ridiculous as the risks Zane takes are, we want him to take those risks. We know why he’s doing it because we need the answers even more than he does. You should know by now whether this movie is your type of movie. If you think it might be, you need to see it and you should go into it knowing as little as possible.

The Arrival isn’t on Netflix Instant, but it is free on Amazon Prime.

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